Faux is the new black this season for holiday gifts. But this isn't the "pleather" of the 1980s — that cheap, plastic-looking material made popular by Michael Jackson during his "Thriller" days.
A $198 fuzzy brown coat at Banana Republic has a prominently placed tag that reads "faux fur." Dresses with "vegan leather" accents are flying off virtual shelves at shopbop.com. And at luxury retailer Barney's, a Marni faux leather three-quarter sleeve jacket sells for $1,900.
Faux is gaining popularity in part because there have been advances in technology enabling designers to make better-looking fakes. In a still-shaky economy that has made Americans more frugal, faux also can be seen as a good way to be trendy without breaking the bank. And a movement toward socially conscious shopping makes some people feel better about faux purchases.
It helps that some A-listers have given faux their seal of approval. Models have been seen on the runway wearing faux leather pieces in shows for big-name designers like Tom Ford and Rag & Bone. And actresses Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson have strutted on the red carpet in faux leather and fur.
While it's difficult to pin down overall sales for faux goods, retailers say they are benefiting from their growing popularity. Banana Republic's $69.50 faux-fur neckwarmer and faux-fur leopard vests have been best sellers. Target says faux fur home goods like pillows and throws are performing "exceptionally well." And Macy's says new techniques used with faux leather, like scalloping and quilted stitching, have given tops and jackets "new relevance."
"It used to be that 'faux' meant less expensive and quality less than desirable, but not any longer," said Josh Saterman, vice president and fashion director for millennials at Macy's. "Faux is a part of our next evolution to our fashion 'must-haves.'"
Andrew Dent, who is a vice president at global materials consultancy Material Connexion, says that the trend is being fueled by the fact that faux fur and leather are nearly indistinguishable from the real thing nowadays. He said that's because designers are replacing older plastic like PVC with improved polyurethane that is more leather-like to the touch. They're also tapering synthetic fibers to make faux fur seem more luxe and softer.
The improved quality is what spurred Brandon Vidal, 28, to buy two faux fur blankets as Christmas presents this year for his mother and a roommate. "They feel great," said Vidal, who lives in Calgary, Alberta. "They're warm and cozy and it is freezing up here in Canada."
In addition to better technology, a growing social consciousness about buying fabric that doesn't involve cruelty to animals has made faux fashion more acceptable. "The fact that this is the season's big trend has to do with a social movement toward greater acceptability of faux versus real," said Alison Levy, senior manager at consulting firm Kurt Salmon. "It's seen as the right and responsible choice as opposed to cheaper value choice."
That message certainly struck a chord with Kristin Birkey's 7-year-old son after he asked for a real leather jacket for Christmas.
"I explained to him what had to be done to make a leather jacket and he nearly started crying," said Birkey, 26, a marketing professional in Kokomo, Ind.
She happened to be wearing a faux leather jacket at the time. So her son asked for one like that instead.
But for others, buying faux is a matter of simple mathematics. A $69.50 faux fur neckwarmer is much cheaper than a designer version with real fur, which can run as much as $1,000. And real leather jackets can be hundreds or thousands of dollars, while department-store faux versions rarely top $100. Kristen Clerkin, 23, from Whitney Point, N.Y., is hoping to get faux pearls for Christmas this year because she thinks they're classic and classy, not to mention more affordable than real ones.
"Even though they're faux, they look real, and they're bigger than you can get if they were real," she said. "Plus, they're a lot cheaper."